Exclusive: Buckeyes Wire goes 1:1 with Chick-fil-A CEO and President Gary Stokan to discuss hosting Ohio State for the first time and more

The Ohio State football program is playing in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl for the first time in its illustrious history. As such, many Buckeye fans may not know a whole lot about the bowl and all that comes with playing in Atlanta. Because of that, we are here to give you more information on the culture, festivities, and pageantry of the bowl and city as many in scarlet and gray descend upon one of the jewels of the American South.

And what better way to do it than to talk to Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl CEO and President, Gary Stokan? As one of the most influential figures in college football, Stokan was kind enough to spend some time talking with us here at Buckeyes Wire. We touched on a wide range of topics including having Ohio State in the game for the first time, its fans, the state of college football, and much more.

Here is a condensed version of the Q&A session with Stokan so that you can be a little smarter when it comes to important facts surrounding the game on Saturday. Feel free to drop some of this info on whatever audience you are around for the College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday night.

On having Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl for the first time

GARY STOKAN (GS): We have a huge contingent of Ohio State people living in Atlanta. I know there’s gonna be a lot of fans driving that I-75 and flying in as well and you know, driving in from around Georgia and the Southeast. In 25 years of doing this, I know Ohio State has one of the great fan bases in college football, so I expect to see at least 13,000 Because they sold their tickets out in two days. And a lot more of the Ohio State people in addition to that too.

On what he expects the mix of fans to look like. Will there be a lot more Georgia fans than Ohio State?

GS: Well, Georgia sold their tickets out in one day. Both athletic directors need more tickets which unfortunately we don’t have. Two thousand Standing room only tickets so the secondary market is alive and well. I think there’ll be pretty close to evem and I really believe Ohio State people want to come down because they have a lot to play for they got the opportunity to get into the playoffs number one.

Number two is they’re gonna get healthy. I know TreVeyon (Henderson) is out and the other guys are gonna get healthy. Number three is they know if they win this game, they get a chance to potentially avenge the loss against the team up north. And then if they did that they’d win the national championship. So Ohio State has everything in the world to play for.

On what fans can expect from if they visit the College Football Hall of Fame when visiting Atlanta

GS: Well, it’s a must-see if you’re a college football fan. It is truly an ‘edutansium’ is what I called it when we were building it, which is very educational. It’s very entertaining, and it’s very much a museum. It’s a lot of activation and a lot of interactivity. A lot of history, and certainly the opportunity if you’re a college football fan, a must-do, and I must say when it comes to Atlanta, especially as close as a lot of people will be near — whether area or downtown hotels which we have 13,000 hotel rooms downtown — all within close walking distance to the College Football Hall of Fame.

On how important it was to get a sponsor like Chick-fil-A with shared values when it comes to charity work

STOKAN: What’s very important to us to give back as part of our mission when we were created back in 1968 by the Lions Lighthouse to give back to the community. Most bowl games are constructed to provide tourism during the holiday season. Like the Rose the Sugar, the Orange, the Cotton, we do that as well.

We’ll have close to $100 million of economic impact between our Chick fil-A Peach Bowl, and our to Chick fil-A Kickoff games that we had earlier this year. But we were built as a charity bowl and we’ve maintained that mission where we’ve given $60.9 million back since 2000 to charities and foundations which is just a lot more than any other bowl game.

And this year will give $6 million back to charity and foundations. So it’s something very very important to us and something that we take great pride in to use college football to positively impact other people’s lives in a meaningful and significant manner.

On the bowl's journey to becoming a really good bowl game to now a part of the New Year's Six and College Football Playoff

STOKAN: Yeah, it was interesting. One of the things I told my board when I took this job is that my job is to get us into the BCS back in 1998 when I first started and I failed. We didn’t get into the BCS but then 2014 when the CFP started we were the first New Year’s Xix game in the CFP, and now we’re hosting our third semifinals No. 1 vs. No. 4.

And back in 1998 when I took the job, we had Georgiavs. Virginia as our first game and the local newspaper here, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a headline saying Georgia is heading to the third-tier Peach Bowl. So we’ve come a long way and it’s been you know, fantastic. Bringing the College Football Hall of Fame to Atlanta, creating the the Kickoff game format which has changed the face of college football on the front side of the season. And now being a part of the New Year’sXsix CFP.

So, yeah, it’s been very rewarding. Been a lot of hard work by a lot of people. Our board and our staff are the best in the business of volunteers — the corporate support we have in Atlanta, as well. As well as all the fans who have lots of tickets.

On what Ohio State fans can expect from the folks at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and city of Atlanta

STOKAN: Yeah, definitely have a good time. We love Southern hospitality and the nice thing about hosting the CFP now, is we’ve seen teams from Washington and Michigan, and Michigan State, Ohio State, and TCU. All come through Atlanta. It’s also been Oklahoma. It’s great to host these big brands of college football that are from really throughout the country now to bring them into Atlanta. You know, they walk away with a great taste in their mouth not only the Chick-fil-A, but also some great fan experiences.

On what college football means to him and the state of the game today

STOKAN: Well, college football is the second most favorite sport in this country. And I’m afraid we’re doing some things that probably are not in the best interests of the game. And that concerns me a little bit. You know, I really believe we need a Csar of college football. But I also believe a Commissioner of college basketball, women’s and men’s commissioner of Olympic sports commissioners, college baseball, and then their boards.

It would be comprised of two athletic directors to commissioners, to coaches to student-athletes, and let that board create a vision for the sport that would move the sport forward with respect to scheduling a playoff, transfer portal and NIL, all the things that come into play because they know the sport and they know how it can positively or negatively impact the sport based on the decisions that are made.

So we need that kind of focus now because the sport has grown to a point where we’re starting to lose our way because there is no vision of what has been created. And you know, it’s gotten out of hand with the transfer portal, and what we need is basically some structure and some vision to the sport because the sport can trickle down to positively impact everybody in a win win win.

But we got to handle it the right way because we are the second most favorite sport in the country. So there are some concerns I have and hopefully, we can alleviate some of those through the future, getting more of a control on the sport itself. And one of the major things we need to do is make sure that we’re staying at college enterprise that we are getting kids degrees number one.

And then getting them jobs afterward. So all these collectives that are paying these kids to come to school, all these collectives, alumni money, and donors, they need to be there after 98% of the kids who don’t go pro need a job as a graduate and get their degree. And that’s where I think the focus needs to be instead of on the other side.

So I’m all for kids getting opportunities, want to get the opportunity to get a scholarship to get owe money that makes sense. But when we start free agency, and we start paying kids just like pro athletes to come to school, and they’re transferring left and right and not getting degrees, then I think we’ve lost our way and that’s not the mission of college athletics.

On his thoughts regarding playoff expansion

STOKAN: Yeah, I’m all for it. First of all, a 12 team playoff will allow more teams to be in the mix a lot longer, you know in October November, so the fan support will be there. More interest level, it’ll grow the sport bringing on new media partners. ESPN has been a great partner of ours and done a great job but when you start to bring in what the Big Ten is bringing in with NBC and CBS and Fox, all of a sudden they’ll start promoting the game.

When teams like the Pac-12, The Big Ten, the SEC, Big Twelve, and ACC, will all have schools playing in Playoff. There’ll be more interest in those areas of the nation. And therefore, young kids will be able to see those teams that are vying for a national championship and get interested in college football.

So I think for all those reasons you know. I think the 12-team Playoff will be good. I just want to make sure that we’ve got a vision and we’ve got someone focused on what the needs are of college football, which there are a lot of needs right now. And I don’t think we’re handling them very well when you’ve got a signing date, coaches changing jobs, ball games, transfer portal, and recruiting all happening at one time. It’s not a very smart way to do things and I think we could clean up a lot of that.

At the end of the day, college football is so strong. It’s so important to this country, that if we get it right, it can just do amazing things. As I said for universities, for student-athletes, for fans, for media — everybody would win out. But we’ve got to really have a focused approach to the future.

On who his team is and where is rooting interest lies

STOKAN: Yeah, North Carolina State is my alma mater, and that’s who I root for. Obviously, I have to be neutral though in my position. And I found that over 25 years, you root for friends more than you root for universities or schools, so I’ve been able to make a lot of friends and relationships. I want them to succeed and do well. So yeah, most weekends I watch every game that I can, and mainly the ones with my friends, and obviously root for them.

On what's next for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

STOKAN: Well, the good thing is we have our schedule for 2023, 2024, and 2025 now that the CFP has agreed to move forward with the playoffs. We have our Kickoff games scheduled. In 2023 we’ll start the season with Georgia Tech and Louisville, and then we’ll end the season with two top ten teams in our Chick fil-A Peach Bowl New Year’s Six game. Then, in 2024, we’ll start the season with Georgia vs. Clemson which will be a blockbuster game to start the season.

We’ll host the quarterfinals with either No. 1, 2, 3, or 4 against another team, in the quarterfinal of the CFP in the first year of the 12-team Playoff, and then at the end of that year in January of 2025 will host the national championship game in Atlanta. That’s an exciting run.

For the 2025 season and 2026 season, we’ll host Virginia Tech versus South Carolina and Tennessee versus Syracuse in our Kickoff games to start the year.  And then we’ll host the national semifinal again at the end of the year, so some great college football coming through over the next three years.

In Closing

We’d like to think Gary Stokan for taking time out of a very, very busy schedule to talk Ohio State football, the state of the college game, and what OSU fans can expect when they visit Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The representatives and volunteers do an amazing job with hosting and providing a first-class experience, but they do it the right way by also making charity a big part of what the game is all about. You can read more about that, in another interview from years ago with Stokan. Believe me when I say you will come away impressed.

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Story originally appeared on Buckeye Wire